For Heaven’s Sake
Our Torah tradition seems to present us with two kinds of enemies—those who are “other” like Amalek and the Philistines, attacking Israel and threatening its survival from without; and those who transform from “us,” to “other” as their words and actions threaten to unravel the very spiritual and moral fabric of the community from within.
In this week’s parashah we witness the painful and disturbing swiftness with which the unity of the Israelite people can shatter, swiftly reconfigured to “us” and “them,” when Korakh, a community leader of impeccable lineage separates himself from the kahal, drawing other leaders of the community into a rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron. In the ensuing spiritual showdown, orchestrated by Moses, the earth splits open, swallowing Korakh, the members of his household, and all their possessions, while 250 other leaders of the community who had stood with Korakh are consumed by G~d’s fire as they offer incense. When the people protest, G~d’s fury is unleashed upon them in a plague.
One classic interpretation of this troubling story is expressed in a passage from the Mishnah (Avot 5:17): “Controversy for the sake of heaven (makhloket she’hi l’shem shamayim) will in the end yield fruitful results, while that which is not for the sake of heaven will not. An example of controversy for the sake of heaven: that of Hillel and Shamai. An example of controversy not for the sake of heaven: that of Korakh.”
The sages imply something very profound here: the disastrous result of Korakh’s mutiny stems not from the relative merit of his complaint, but from the way he conducts the dispute. For is there not, after all, truth in Korakh’s claim, that we are all One before G~d, all holy? Had not the mishkan been built so that G~d’s Presence could manifest within each one of the Israelites and in the midst of the community, as well as through its prophetic and priestly leaders?
Contemporary Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg invokes Levinas’ image of “the voice from another shore” to further unpack Korakh’s failure. In her analysis, Moses, heavily invested in speaking, tries until the last moment to engage Korakh in an interaction that might have a chance of restoring the integrity of the kahal. But after making the initial accusation, Korakh remains silent, unwilling to engage with the “voice from another shore” that irritates and annoys him, unwilling to enliven the space between Moses and himself because, the Midrash suggests, he is afraid of being won over.
A controversy for heaven’s sake, as my colleague Rabbi Shelly Lewis wrote last week, “assumes a bond of trust and affection between the interlocutors. It also assumes a willingness to listen, to learn, and to accept the perspective of another if it proves to be the best. The sides seek the best, the most wise solution.” Refusing to engage, to take even a single step into the gap that separates him from Moses and Aaron, Korakh generates an irreparable crack in the community, one that is mirrored by the crack in the earth that opens under the him, swallowing all that he is and has. In his disengagement, his fear to let his challenge be challenged, he controverts the very truth he seeks to assert, invoking heaven in a way that, ultimately, is not for heaven’s sake.
These past ten days, following news of the situation currently unfolding off the shores of Gaza, I’ve read many passionate, conflicting interpretations and felt the painful, unsoothable tension of a seemingly intractable conflict once again escalating, both in the Middle East and within our own communities. I’ve been tempted to ask, as I imagine the community of Israelites in the wilderness, exhausted and traumatized, must also have been asking as they witnessed the confrontation between Korakh and Moses: who has the ear of heaven? who speaks with the voice of heaven? who can be trusted?
But to ask these kinds of questions ultimately pulls me back from a terrifyingly shaky edge on which I need to stand—the place where I have to admit that I don’t know what’s going on. This is the groundless ground of true engagement, the Void between polarities from which, our mystics teach, all Creation was birthed. Korakh’s name, which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “bald” or “absent,” hints at his inability to stay present in the face of this very Void (Ayin) in which opposites dissolve and something new can emerge. And so he falls, leaving a hole in the heart of the world, depriving the community of the richness he might have offered in service of the Holy, if only all parties had been able to stay engaged, present, and vulnerable. I pray that we may somehow learn at last to rest together in the place of Ayin, with humility and love, inviting the Light that can shine only through the broken shards of our certainties, our self-righteousness, our most dearly held convictions.